Academic journal article English Journal

Breaking the Thin Glass: Alternative-Genre Responses to Standardized Writing Tests

Academic journal article English Journal

Breaking the Thin Glass: Alternative-Genre Responses to Standardized Writing Tests

Article excerpt

Faced with standardized writing tests, students must write on demand to prompts they haven't chosen. Their writing will be read by people (or artificial-intelligence programs) they will never meet and scored with rubrics they have not helped design. In addition to their responses being limited by a predetermined amount of time or space, students are further constrained in their choice of genre: conventional wisdom dictates that students must respond to standardized writing tests by producing nonfictional prose essays. Accordingly, teachers often perpetuate genre limitations in the classroom (Hillocks; Ketter and Pool; Luna and Turner 83). Standardized writing tests "stress conformity, ruin love for learning, and suppress creativity and individuality" (Fu and Lamme 249). It's no wonder that so many students manufacture perfunctory responses or "recital writing" (Nielsen vi).

While students have little control over the prompts they must answer or the time and space limitations in which they must answer them, students and teachers have opportunities for meaningful resistance to standardized writing tests in reconsidering their genre of response. Since 2014, students have written poems, plays, raps, short stories, satires, speeches, journalistic articles, personal narratives, journal and diary entries, memoirs, letters, TV news reports, petitions, multigenre pieces, Facebook posts, and metacommentaries in response to our state's end-of-course writing test. Their scores build upon assertions that students can write in multiple genres in the classroom and perform well on standardized writing tests (Higgins et al.; Manzo). In this article I offer examples where eleventh-grade student writers were given choice of genre in preparing for and responding to Virginia's End-of-Course Direct Writing Test. By introducing the possibility of alternative-genre responses (i.e., responses in genres other than the conventional essay), providing successful alternative-genre mentor texts, and supporting students who are willing to experiment with genre, we can empower students to speak back to standardized writing tests in a variety of genres.

Preparing for a Statewide Writing Test: September to December

Each September our English department asks all of our eleventh-grade students to respond to a prompt from Virginia's end-of-course writing-test bank, and each year the results roll in with clockwork predictability. The vast majority of our students initially produce conventional essays, many of which are in five-paragraph form, and few of which are personally meaningful to their writers. The near monopoly of nonfictional prose in our diagnostic is hardly surprising: even in their English classes, high school students mostly write nonfictional texts; some students never write creatively (Scherff and Piazza). "As students move through school," notes Tom Romano, "they write fewer and fewer poems, metaphors, images, stories, and narratives. Exposition becomes their sole writing diet: reports of various kinds, summaries, essay exams, traditional research papers" (18).

Consider the introduction of Julia's response to "It has been said that first impressions are almost impossible to change. Based on your experiences, do you agree or disagree with this statement? Take a position on this issue. Support your response with reasons and specific examples":

Can anyone truly change a first impression? After all, a first impression is the foundation on which the way you view a person is built. Holding on to a bad first impression has made its way into popular culture in the form of phrases such as 'holding a grudge' and 'frenemy'. However, people change, and therefore so do friendships. Over time, we gain our experiences that shape our behavior toward others, altering the way people see us.

Julia's prose is efficient, and she demonstrates good critical thinking in distinguishing first impressions from holistic impressions. She goes on to discuss her impressions of two of her friends-one for whom her first impression was consistent with her later impression and another for whom it wasn't- but she maintains a clinical distance from the subject. …

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